Great Houston Chronicle op ed by Cy Fair Superintendent Mark Henry on the lack of charter transparency and accountability and its effect on democracy. "...charter schools... have created an innovative way to make money on the backs of taxpayers without transparency and fiscal accountability while producing inferior results. "
Henry: Funding for charter schools needs transparency, accountability
By Mark Henry | December 3, 2014 | Updated: December 3, 2014 7:39pm
Innovation is what charter schools promised. And they have delivered. They have created an innovative way to make money on the backs of taxpayers without transparency and fiscal accountability while producing inferior results. This is what YES Prep board member Justin Segal left out of his recent commentary "Embarrassment of riches" (Page B14, Nov. 16), in which he admonished public schools for construction expenditures while simultaneously petitioning legislators to allow charter schools to take a bite from the same school-funding pie.
In Texas public schools, bond referendums are decided by local elections called by a board of elected trustees, allowing voters to decide whether their district may sell bonds - and use their tax dollars to repay the debt - to construct and/or renovate facilities. Charter schools are permitted to sell bonds and build facilities without public approval or transparent notification. In fact, according to a Bloomberg Brief, $464 million of bonds have been sold by charter schools in the last few weeks without any voter approval. Furthermore, the principal and interest on these bonds are guaranteed by the Texas Permanent School Fund and sold as top-rated AAA bonds even though the underlying bond ratings for these charter schools are BBB-, which are non-investment grade and one notch up from junk bond classification.
The minutiae might make the eyes of most glaze over, but it's important to understand the distinction in financing when addressing the question Segal poses about accountability in school building construction costs.
Charter schools are neither more efficient nor more fiscally responsible than traditional public schools. A 2013 study conducted by the Center for Research and Education Outcomes at Stanford University analyzed differences in student performance at charter schools and traditional public schools across 27 states and New York City, and found that charters do not achieve at the same academic levels as traditional public schools.
The state's evaluation of school financial accountability is not complimentary to charters. According to the TEA's financial accountability system, FIRST, nearly 40 percent of charter schools received a rating of either "Standard" or "Substandard," with 60 percent of the 40 percent rated as "Substandard." Compare that to 89 percent of public school districts receiving a rating of "Superior Achievement."
Charters are funded using per-pupil state averages for Texas public school districts; therefore, they are funded at a higher level than half of the traditional school districts in the state. Because they do not have a taxing district, the state funds approximately 80 to 90 percent of maintenance and operations budgets of charters - the largest chunk of schools' annual budgets - compared to less than 50 percent for traditional school districts. As more charters are approved, the state must accept additional financial responsibility for the operating budget. Now, charter proponents are demanding facility funding, too.
When charter schools were established in Texas in 1995, many proponents proclaimed the schools could educate students more cheaply and better than traditional public schools. Neither of those goals has come to fruition. During the 2013-2014 school year, 92.6 percent of Texas public school districts achieved the highest accountability rating of "Met Standard," compared to only 81.8 percent of charters. As documented, charters seldom out-perform traditional public schools, even with significant advantages - fewer state regulations, the ability to select their student population, extended instructional time, political support and corporate dollars - all lacking transparency and with less accountability.
Charters were designed to be laboratories of innovation, but they have evolved into profit-oriented businesses with a dollar amount attached to each child. Students who are difficult to educate or have significant special needs are seldom accepted or are removed prior to the state assessment. Recently, one of the largest Texas charter school chains, Harmony Charter Schools, was cited by the United States Department of Education'sDivision of Civil Rights for their low acceptance of English-language learners and students with disabilities. Educating these "expensive" students would limit profits.
Unlike charters, traditional public schools must meet the needs of every child and cannot send students back to their home school for attendance or disciplinary violations.
I still believe in a state with a core value that all children should have equal opportunity regardless of race, religion, ability or ZIP code. I believe universal public education is what made this nation great. Providing facilities funding for open enrollment charter schools will be the first step toward creating publicly funded privatization and segregation of America's greatest tradition - universal public education.
Mark Henry is superintendent of the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District.